Am I hurting my local public schools—and hurting America—by sending my kids to expensive private schools?

Advice on how to make the world better.
March 10 2010 7:01 AM

A Private Matter

Am I hurting my local public schools—and hurting America—by sending my kids to expensive private schools?

As fallout from the Great Recession continues to besiege families on all fronts, the cost of a private education is creating an exodus of students from private to public schools. In an April 2009 My Goodness column, Patty Stonesifer and Sandy Stonesifer addressed one parent's concern that sending her children to private school hurt local schools and her community. The original article is reprinted below.

Dear Patty and Sandy,

My family lives on the west side of Los Angeles. I face the same choice as many urban families: Will the kids attend public or private schools? Should one minimize opportunities for one's own child in service to the greater good?

In our desire to protect our children physically and academically, we send them to very expensive schools that are inherently segregated ethnically and economically. We, being white, educated, and comparatively affluent, are the agenda-setters in society. The agenda does not include fierce protection of the public school system we value in general terms but abandon in our own specific cases.

And so we've let down our future fellow citizens by turning our backs on them. And we've certainly let the government off the hook yet again, by individually shouldering the burden of quality education for our own children and letting the public schools crumble. Advice?

Eloise

Patty:

Eloise, the public education failure in this country is huge, and fixing it needs to be a national priority. Thirty percent of American eighth-graders never make it to graduation; 1.2 million students will drop out of high school this year. We rank 21st in science education and 25th in math education among the top 30 industrialized nations. As you know, our country's future requires deep and broad reform of our public school system. I encourage you to follow, learn, and act on key education decisions that affect all students in California, and you can do that through the Education Trust's West Coast affiliate. On a national basis, you can learn about what is going on across the country and how you can take action related to the three pillars that are part of the Strong American Schools effort (raising American education standards, putting effective teachers in every classroom, and increasing time for learning). There is some limited good news: The stimulus plan included $140 billion for schools, and while most of that will go to prop up state investments in education in times of decreased revenue, about $15 billion of it is discretionary for the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who plans to use it reward and accelerate education reform efforts.

Now my own disclosure: My two kids went to public schools for elementary school, and then we switched them to a local private school. Even with my concern about the overall system, I am unapologetic about this decision. My role as a concerned citizen—supporting the importance of public schools in my community and across the country—did not trump my responsibility as a parent to make the best decisions I could for my family and my children given the information I had at hand about their needs and the services available.

While my advice is to choose the best school you can for your child and your family situation, you also have a continued obligation, in my view, to advocate for near-term and dramatic improvements in the public system that serves the majority of our children.

Sandy:

Since I don't have kids of my own yet, I haven't given much thought to the public vs. private dilemma. I asked some twentysomething friends what their plans are and ended up with a variety of "it depends" coupled with looks of intense distress at the thought of having to make such a weighty decision. I feel the same way, so I offered the following challenge to a friend who is also an education expert: What advice would she give to parents struggling with Eloise's dilemma?

She made the excellent point that accepting the public education system as it is would be a far better example of "letting the government off the hook" than sending your kids to private school. While making the right personal decision about your children's well-being is important, so is the public responsibility that you have to advocate for all kids in the same way you advocate for your own. And she underscored what research shows (and every parent knows) to be the most important determinant of success at any school: quality teachers. How we ensure the best teachers are attracted and retained in the system, however, is hotly contested. Performance pay, changes in teacher training, better data systems to track student progress, or any of the other numerous teacher incentive programs will require that we begin to make real efforts at reform and track the evidence of what works. The New Teacher Project, started by Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, works to help ensure all kids have access to the highest-quality, effective teachers possible.

In President Obama's first town hall meeting, his answer to the question "How do we know what makes an effective teacher?" was, by some reports, the most animated exchange. Our education guru says that the most well-meaning parents who flee public schools (and probably even well-meaning parents who have their kids in public schools) often end up unconsciously supporting bad policy decisions when they think they are doing what's best for kids. One of the best examples of this can be found in your home state of California, Eloise. California pushed through a huge statewide class-size-reduction effort in the primary grades. While it cost the state billions of dollars, the effort actually ended up diminishing teacher quality without showing any clear educational benefits. Though "conventional wisdom" still says that smaller class sizes are the most important factor in a child's educational success, the only thing the research shows to be anything close to a "silver bullet" is ensuring that children end up with a high-quality teacher for an extended time.

Finally, returning to the dilemma of the parent making the decision one child at a time: It's important to remember that there are great private schools and great public schools. So rather than worry about one type of school over the other, you should focus on identifying your child's and family's needs and do your best to find a school that meets them. The Department of Education's Guide to Choosing a School for Your Child and the Great Schools site both provide good tools and resources for deciding what factors are important to you and finding schools that meet those needs.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.